Virtuosity in Motion at the Taubman Institute : Music: Keyboardists flock to Dorothy Taubman, a healer who knows the cause of repetitive injury and how to fix it.
To the scores of musicians suffering from performance injuries, Dorothy Taubman, 75, is nothing short of a miracle worker who has healed them from a life of pain and uncertainty.
Last month, about 200 keyboardists--performers, professors, would-be teachers, doctors, scientists and just the curious, ranging from ages 13 to 71 and hailing from as far as Israel, Scotland and Japan--assembled at Amherst College for the 18th annual Taubman Institute.
The two-week series of lessons, lectures and master classes was dedicated to Taubman’s teachings--which, the brochure informs, are based on the principle ". . . that correct motion overcomes technical problems and limitations, produces virtuosity and prevents injury.”
(The Taubman approach will be demonstrated in a lecture and master class by Institute associate music director Edna Golandsky of New York on Nov. 12 at UC Irvine.)
To Ron Levy, 36, of Long Beach, the Institute at Amherst provides “the ideal learning environment.” A former dance and music accompanist on staff at Idyllwild School of Music and the Arts, Levy sustained injuries to both forearms after playing “too many hours of banging, loud music.”
Now, after a hearty breakfast in the cafeteria, Levy rushes to a 7:40 a.m. lesson with pianist Nina Scolnik, a faculty member at both UC Irvine and the Institute, with whom he has studied privately for a year. His daily 20-minute tutorials are devoted to the study of complex movements that synchronize finger, hand and forearm.
“Until I get the fundamentals down, a lesson every day is ideal,” Levy says. “I have time to solidify what I’ve learned. After two weeks, I hope I’ll be well on my way.”
Prior to assuming a faculty position at Baltimore’s Peabody Conservatory of Music, Marian Hahn had studied Taubman’s principles, albeit haphazardly, with pianist Alan Feinberg in New York. Now, she seeks a better “overview of the system” to implement in her teaching and in her own playing.
“The piano world needs some kind of technique that is safe and efficient and is transferable from one person to another,” Hahn says. "(Ivan) Galamian did it for the violin, but piano technique has been in the province of a gifted few. This is a problem-solving approach, available to anyone.”
Tuition and full board at Amherst runs $1,250. But unlike many music camps where participants are chosen by audition, all applicants, no matter the level of expertise, are accepted at the Institute and are evaluated upon arrival to determine individual needs.
“We want people to come to us early and when still just uncomfortable with limitations,” says the Institute’s Golandsky. “We want them to know that curled fingers, and dropped wrists, and twisting (of the hands) are booby-traps.
“We define injury as having pain. It doesn’t mean you can no longer function. But any symptom of fatigue or discomfort is a sign that something is not right.”
Pain is a warning signal, concurs pianist Leon Fleisher, who because of injury has since 1982 been restricted to mainly playing works for the left hand.
Speaking at his sprawling studio at Tanglewood, a 90-minute drive west of here, where he serves as artistic director of the Music Center, Fleisher blames modern technology and the pressure of competing with recordings for the rash of repetitive stress injuries. He also believes the Russian school, with its emphasis on curved fingers, has caused the downfall of many artists.
“Much too much emphasis is given on finger action in piano playing,” says Fleisher, who with continued therapy “has every expectation” of resuming two-handed playing.
“Dorothy’s (Taubman’s) idea of using the source of strength, the weight of the arm and of getting speed from the very powerful supinator and pronator muscles in the forearm makes enormous sense. But it’s unfortunate that piano technique is such an anecdotal thing and is not yet understood in its bio-mechanical basis.
“Dorothy is absolutely extraordinary in her intuition of when you have pain, where it is you’re doing something wrong and how she can get rid of it. That’s very special. She’s almost a healer in that sense.”
Taubman’s afternoon master classes remain a highlight. Though she peppers her sessions with colorful musical anecdotes, the silver-haired Taubman clearly is in her element when talking technique.
“I don’t want those octaves to sound like an exercise,” she interrupts as Marc Steiner, 34, a Torrance-based piano teacher and Institute teaching assistant, essays the Liszt B-minor Sonata. “Add more arm weight.”
Then, Taubman asks: “Is this the fastest you can go? Want to take a chance?”
He nods, and all hell breaks loose in the packed auditorium as he lets rip a torrent of fortissimo octaves.
Because students often must travel great distances for lessons with Taubman’s few hand-picked disciples--Scolnik, for example, coaches pianists from Texas, Oklahoma and Oregon at her Laguna Niguel home--the Institute is frantically training would-be Taubmanites to carry on the message. Meanwhile, Taubman struggles to document--and refine--the complex ideas she first developed all those years ago when her husband was away during World War II.
“As you see injured musicians you get a glimpse into the human body and how it works and you see your own work from other angles,” Taubman says in an interview. “I was able to build Amherst and have a special place where people can get this information. But what they get here is just a sketch.
“My regret is that I haven’t done my book, which would cover all aspects. Some people who write books haven’t produced a single pianist. But everything I put down has to be scientifically proven and and has to be repeatable. And if there aren’t people to teach it, it will die with me.”
* Edna Golandsky, associate music director of the Taubman Institute, will give a lecture and master class from 10 a.m.-4:30 p.m. on Nov. 12 at UC Irvine. The video “Choreography of the Hands,” featuring Taubman at work, will also screen. $35. (714) 856-6615.